Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Archive for the month “April, 2015”

John Christopher Hickson (1848-1945)

Donald Robinson, a former Archbishop of Sydney, writes (around 1960):

The Hicksons were an old Protestant family whose Hickson forebears had crossed to Ireland from England in the time of Cromwell. Their ancestral seat was “The Grove” at Dingle, 30 miles or more west of Tralee in county Kerry, and a few miles from the western extremity of Ireland.

Don Robinson and Dad (who are cousins) are great grandsons of John Hickson (1848-1945), the youngest son of Richard and Mary Hickson, who lived in the early 1800s in Country Kerry. Don has written a fascinating account of John Hickson, which I will quote in full below. Two other brothers, William and George, as well as a sister, Kate, are mentioned by name in this account, since they all migrated to Australia, though William first migrated to America and later to Australia. William, who was 15 years older than John, is of equal interest to me because Mum was descended from him. Mum and Dad are therefore distantly related to each other, though they had no idea of this at the time they married.

Don’s account of John Christopher Hickson (slightly edited) is as follows:

JCH was born on the 2 September 1848 and bred in the small town called Killorglin, on the Laune River as it flows from the Killarney Lakes to the sea. Some part of his boyhood was spent in the picturesque village of Sneem, on the wild rocky coast Kerry, where he had Needham relatives. He was the youngest of a large family, which dispersed to various parts of the world. His mother, Mary Ann (nee Carter), and some of his brothers and sisters died in Killorglin, but his father Richard, a shopkeeper, went with his elder brother William to America, Richard lies buried in North Cemetery at Providence, near Boston.

JCH came to Australia alone (a doctor advised a warm climate for his weak chest) and went to work for George Hudson the timber merchant. Impatient of his slow progress, he began his own timber business, and soon owned his own mills at Nabiac on the Walamba River, and a yard at Darling Harbour, at the foot of Liverpool Street. He was always an enthusiast for the possibilities of Australia, and he persuaded his brother William to come here from America, and another brother George from Ireland, who married Agnes Harper in St. Phillip’s on 9 November 1870. His sister Kate also settled here, and married Hugh Breckenridge, an artist. A daughter of Robert Breckenridge, Hugh’s brother, subsequently owned “The Grange” at Mount Victoria, formerly owned by the Schleichers, and today by the C.S.S.M.

JCH was a member of the first Sydney Regiment when it was formed in the 1860’s. On 25 January 1872, he married Martha Watts who had been born in Balmain N.S.W. on the 20th June 1848, to William Watts, farmer and Mary nee (Mountgarret), then living in Balmain. The marriage was at St. Luke’s Sussex St., Sydney (now demolished) By Rev. Thomas Unwin. They had eleven children: Alice (Mrs. Ross), Edith (Mrs. Layton), George, Mabel (Mrs. Robinson), Maud, Aubrey, Stanley, Percy, Eunice, Hilda (Mrs. Doyle) and Roland. Maud died as a child. My grandmother Alice, was the eldest of the family. She was born on 10 November 1872, at Botany Road, Waterloo.

The Hickson home was later in Cleveland Street facing Albert Park, and is perhaps still standing. But while Alice was still a girl, JCH moved to Summer Hill at which time my grandmother attended the first service in the new St Andrew’s Church on 5 September 1885, when the Rector John Vaughan preached on the text “Come and See”. In the 1880’s JCH moved again to a house called “The Grove” in Liverpool St. Enfield, and I still have the use of a Latin dictionary which bears Alice’s name, with “High School Sydney, 1886” inscribed. The Hicksons were associated with St. Thomas’s Church at Enfield, where Alice was prepared for confirmation by Rev. E. S. Wilkinson, and where she was later married by him on the 24th, August, 1896, the first couple married in the renovated St. Thomas’s Church.

In 1893 JCH made a trip around the world, including a visit to the World Fair at Chicago and pilgrimage to his old family haunts in Ireland. He had friends and relatives (many from Kerry like himself) in a number of places both in America and the British Isles; one such was the Rev. B Needham, a relative, minister of the Baptist Church in Coatesville, near Philadelphia; and a friend of boyhood days, who showed many kindnesses in London, was the chief inspector at Scotland Yard, Mr. Melville. JCH took my grandmother (Alice, then aged 21) with him on this trip, partly, it is said, to prevent a romance with Richard Byrne (who had been born in Killarney, Ireland, and whose family was well known to the Hicksons.) She seems to have had a gay time on the trip. JCH published an account of his journey under the title “Notes of Travel, From Pacific to Atlantic’, with description of the World fair at Chicago, and travels by sea and land around the world. It was printed at Parramatta by Fuller’s Lighting Printing Works Company, and ran to about 80 octavo pages. Much of the information of his early years has been obtained from this, and it contains some interesting material, including the fact they went to hear D.L. Moody preach a number of times in Chicago, and on one occasion JCH pushed through the throng to speak to and shake the hand of the great evangelist.

On 24 August 1895, shortly after their return, Alice married my grandfather, William Frederick Ross, of Heydon St., Enfield.

JCH continued to prosper, and at this time owned a timber yard near Burwood station in Railway Parade, where the Metropolitan Funeral Home now stands. He bought a holiday home on the southern highlands at Balmoral – ‘Glen Gariffe’, (named after a town in Ireland), where my mother spent many holidays as a girl. When he was only 46, at the time of his trip abroad, he had retired from active work, and about 1906 he moved from Enfield to Manly, where he bought a large house, ‘Kyamba’ (still standing 1960), in Addison Road, and lived on the income from his various properties.

In 1911 he went to England again, for the coronation of George V, with his wife. On the return journey Martha caught cholera at Naples, and was buried in the Mediterranean Sea on the 18th July 1911. Four months after his arrival home, JCH married again, to Miss Alice Elizabeth Hammett, who had been on the ship (coming out to marry someone in Western Australia) and had nursed Martha Hickson, on the voyage.

JCH became a churchwarden and treasurer at St. Matthew’s Manly, and when the new church was built he was the clerk of works. He fell out with the Rector, the Rev. A.R. Ebbs, over matters of financial policy.

When Alice Elizabeth died, JCH, now 77, went to England again and returned with a third bride, Isabel Hewitt Parkinson who survived him. He placed a fine brass Lectern in St. Matthew’s in memory of Alice Elizabeth. His later years were spent in a flat at number 9 Victoria Parade, Manly, where he died in 1945 at the age of 97. He had hoped to live to be 100, to see his descendants to the fourth generation, and to see the end of the war. But none of these hopes was fulfilled. He paid my university fees in 1941, and offered to do so for the rest of my course, but the war interrupted my studies. He left 100 pounds to each of his great grandsons. He retained his faculties to the end of his life, and enjoyed conversations with S.M. Johnstone and T. C. Hammond, both Irishmen like himself.

He never forgave my grandmother for her second marriage, when she was 70, to Dick Byrne.

When he first married and lived in Redfern, JCH was friendly with Nathaniel Taubman, my wife’s grandfather with whom he used to walk to work in Waterloo.


Six generations of Holfords

The backbone of this blog is my Holford ancestry, back to northern Germany (Denmark) in the late 1700s. The stories, however, are not just of the Holfords but the various individuals who have married into the line and the families from which they have originated. The stories of my ancestors is a story of northern Europe and the chart below gives a broad overview of their origins in Denmark, Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Belgium. All the lines lead to Australia, which is, of course, not in northern Europe at all.

And yet, nowadays I live with my wife and kids in Sweden, but Maria and I met in England, married in Sweden and have lived many years in Australia as well as Sweden. I think we see ourselves as more Australian than Swedish, although our children are, like me, perhaps just a little confused about their identity. We are what we are, and perhaps my obsessing about family history is an attempt to define where I have come from in an effort to know a little more of who I am.

Two hundred years of Holfords and their wives' families.

Two hundred years of Holfords and their wives’ families.

John and Caroline Holdorf, m.1868

John and Caroline Holdorf tree

John and Caroline Holdorf of Goulburn, NSW

James Ross: a servant in Victorian England, 1851

The Victorian age was one of great wealth and great poverty. The poor served the wealthy. It is slightly disturbing to read about the nature of society at that time, especially when it is seen through modern eyes. Bill Bryson describes this world in his typical entertaining style:

It was unquestionably a strange world. Servants constituted a class of humans whose existences were fundamentally devoted to making certain that another class of humans would find everything they desired within arm’s reach more or less the moment it occurred to them to desire it. (At Home, Bill Bryson, p.102)

Some of the bigger houses had dozens of servants, Bryson mentions that “a large country house typically had forty indoor staff. The bachelor Earl of Lonsdale lived alone but had forty nine people to look after him… Outdoor staff swelled the ranks further… At Elvedeen, the Guiness family estate in Suffolk, the household employed sixteen gamekeepers, twenty-eight warreners (for culling rabbits) and two dozen miscellaneous hands – seventy seven people in all – just to make sure they and their guests always had plenty of flustered birds to blow to smithereens.”

Bryson, in his book draws freely on a well known publication of the Victorian age, The Book of Household Management (1861), by Mrs Isabella Beeton. He comments that

often the hardest work was in smaller households, where one servant might have to do the work of two or three elsewhere. Mrs Beeton, predictably, had a great deal to say about how many servants one should have depending on financial position and breeding. Someone of noble birth, she decreed, would require at least twenty five servants. A person earning £1000 a year needed five – a cook, two housemaids, a nursemaid and a footman. The minimum for a middle class, professional household was three: parlourmaid, housemaid and cook. Even someone on as little as £150 a year was deemed wealthy enough to employ a maid-of-all-work… Mrs Beeton herself had four servants. (At Home, p.108)

There were huge numbers of servants in Victorian England. Bryson observes

By 1851, one third of all the young women in London – those aged from about fifteen to twenty-five – were servants… The total number of servants in London, male and female, was greater than the total populations of all but the six largest English cities. It was very much a female world. Females in service in 1851 outnumbered males by ten to one. (At Home, p.96)

James Ross, my grandmother’s grandfather, was one of the male servants, though the house where he found a position was not in London, but in a town called Great Malvern in the west of England. Servants almost always came from the lower classes of society. James was an immigrant from the Scottish highlands. Born in 1827, he, like many others, left his native land sometime between 1841 and 1851, and moved south to England, in search of a better life. He was one of a large family in a small rural community on Dornoch Firth in Ross and Cromarty, on the eastern side of Scotland north of Inverness. It is likely that there was simply not enough work to sustain him, as well as all his siblings. His father was a blacksmith, and the family business was not enough for all the boys in the family. He had two older brothers, Donald and John, as well as five younger brothers. At least one of these, John, who was a year older than James, became a blacksmith.

James decided to seek his fortune in the south. It may have been economic necessity that pushed him away from his native land, but I suspect there was an element of the adventurer in him too. He dreamt of distant places, and his first step away from home on his life’s journey was to England. Whether he ever returned to Scotland is hard to know. Servants in the 1840s and 50s had few if any holidays. Even by the Edwardian period in the early 1900s most servants had only half a day off a week, and one full day a month. James would have had few opportunities to go home to visit his family.

According to the 1851 census James at the age of 24 was a servant at Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern, employed by a Mrs Ann Warwick, a forty five year old widow and “proprietor of houses.” This house should not be confused with the famous stately home by the same name in Derbyshire, a popular destination nowadays for tourists looking for an experience of a real English stately home, and familiar to many who have never been there because of the films in which it has featured, one of which, Pride and Prejudice (2005) depicts all the glories of the aristocracy at the beginning of the 1800s, which was before the Victorian era in England. A picture of the Chatsworth House in Great Malvern in which James Ross lived and worked can easily be found by a quick internet search, and it reveals a far less imposing structure, a plain house of four storeys and an attic, nowadays apparently divided into flats, and looking decidedly ragged around the edges.

Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern

Chatsworth House, Abbey Road, Great Malvern

As dog eared as it appears today, it would appear that Chatsworth House in the middle of the nineteenth century was somewhat more respectable, typical of a “person earning £1000 a year” (by Mrs Beeton’s description), since the census indicates five servants, James Ross, Mary Furmage and three others: two housemaids, Hannah Pearce (25) and Sarah Ballinger (16) and the cook, Elizabeth Howells (39). Mary Furmage was presumably the housekeeper, while James, the only male in the house, must have been butler and footman in one person. Mary was also a native of Ross and Cromarty in Scotland. A quick look into her ancestry indicates that her mother’s maiden name was Ross, making me wonder if she may have been a cousin of James. She was some six years older than James, and may well have been working at Chatsworth before James. Perhaps it was through a family connection with Mary that James gained his position in the household.

Extract from 1851 England census for Malvern

Extract from 1851 England census for Malvern

Male servants in Victorian households performed a variety of duties. The senior male servant was the butler, but there were also valets, houseboys and footmen. “Footmen did most of the public jobs in the household – answered the door, served at table, delivered messages.” In country houses the outdoor staff were usually male too. James, being the only male servant, probably did many different jobs, but perhaps he would be best described as a footman. His life was probably not particularly easy. Bryson in his book quotes the novelist George Moore, who “wrote from experience in his memoir, Confessions of a Young Man, the lot of a servant was to spend seventeen hours a day *drudging in and out of the kitchen, running upstairs with coals and breakfasts and cans of hot water, or down on your knees before a grate… The lodgers sometimes threw you a kind word, but never one that recognised you as one of our kin; only the pity that might be extended to a dog.”

Exactly what was the nature of Mrs Warwick’s business is hard to discern. What was a “proprietor of houses?” I wonder. The census indicates that as well as the Ann Warwick and her staff there were six visitors present in the house on the day of counting. Mr and Mrs Jeffcock were a middle aged couple from the north, presumably Yorkshire. Mr Jeffcock was a magistrate and alderman and proprietor of coal mines. Like Mrs Warwick herself, they were members of the growing middle class. Three others who were visiting the house on the day of the census were apparently sisters – Elizabeth, Wilhelmina and Johanna Mathison, aged between 58 and 42, appear also to have been Scottish, although in their case from Sutherland Shire, just to the north of Ross. The sixth visitor in the house that day was Louise Starkey, aged 32, from Worcestershire. Perhaps all of these “visitors” were people who had come to Malvern for one reason or another and were looking for somewhere to live. Perhaps a proprietor of houses was the equivalent of a modern estate agent, and Mrs Warwick was helping them to find a new or a temporary home.

In the front garden of Chatsworth House there is a pool which is fed by spring waters from the Malvern Hills. There is a description of the pool and the house on a website entitled Springs, Spouts, Fountains and Holy Wells of the Malvern Hills:

This water feature dates from the mid-nineteenth century when Chatsworth House was built circa 1848 on the Grange Estate. By 1855 the house is recorded as being owned by Ann Warwick. There was a plentiful supply of spring water in the vicinity to feed the pool and it remains in water to this day. Like its neighbours Fonthill, Tintern House and The Establishment, it had a domestic supply of spring water from the Mason Tank. This was a large water tank that the landowning Mason family had built some years earlier, where the Baptist Church is now. Water in the tank was always in short supply in the summer, so a garden feature like this must have had a supply directly from the hills.


We know from the census that the wealthy widow, Ann Warwick, already lived in, and presumably owned, Chatsworth House in 1851. The house was therefore just three years old by then, and it is possible that James had been there since it was built. Whether Mrs Warwick herself had the house built, or whether it was her husband before he died, is hard to say. To the modern mind it seems odd that a single woman could need a domestic staff of five people, but as Bryson points out in his book, the number of servants seems to have been more a reflection of the owner’s social status and annual income, than of the need for servants. Ann Warwick was clearly a woman of moderate wealth and presumably some influence, and her house and its servants were an indicator of this.

There are two other houses in Abbey Road which are similar to Chatsworth in architectural style – one called Salisbury House (previously Fonthill) and the other Tintern House. They appear to have been built around the same time. Some of the other Abbey Road houses are a good bit more attractive and impressive than Chatsworth House. There is a description of them on another website, with a page devoted to “a stroll down Abbey Road”. It is a pleasant road in a pleasant part of England.

Malvern in the 1850s was a rapidly expanding health spa, known for the healthy properties of the water from springs in the Malvern Hills. The following description comes from Wikipedia:

Malvern expanded rapidly as a residential spa. Several large hotels and many of the large villas in Malvern date from its heyday. Many smaller hotels and guest houses were built between about 1842 and 1875. By 1855 there were already 95 hotels and boarding houses and by 1865 over a quarter of the town’s 800 houses were boarding and lodging houses. Most were in Great Malvern, the town centre, while others were in the surrounding settlements of Malvern Wells, Malvern Link, North Malvern and West Malvern.

Perhaps this gives a clue as to Ann Warwick’s profession as “proprietor of houses.” Clearly there was a huge demand for accommodation in Malvern in the mid 1800s and in the days before telephone and internet new arrivals needed an agent to help them find somewhere to stay. Hence the presence, presumably, of so many “visitors” on the day of the census in 1851, the 30th of March. Perhaps the house had rooms where people could stay until their lodging was available, or while they were looking around. James Ross, as the only male member of staff, would have had his work cut out for him, as would the cook, the housekeeper and the housemaids. But how he ended up in Malvern after a childhood in the Scottish Highlands is still a mystery.

He did not stay long in Malvern. Somewhere and somehow he met Mary Marston, a girl some years younger than him. They married and moved to Wales, close to where Mary had grown up and where her parents and brothers were still living. I have wondered whether Mary had entered service too at Chatsworth House. Her father was a carpenter and it seems unlikely that they were wealthy enough to come to Malvern to take the waters. James and Mary’s first child was born in Wales in 1855, so James must have left his job at Malvern in 1853 or 54. He subsequently trained as a carpenter, becoming a joiner and journeyman. It seems likely that he learnt the trade from his father-in-law. It must surely have been a better life than that of a servant in Victorian Malvern.

It is an odd coincidence that James Ross, who ended up in Australia, lived for some years in a town famous for the healing power of its water. In the far north of Germany, in Schleswig-Holstein, a young man named Johan Holtorf was planning at the same time (the 1850s) to migrate to Australia. Johan lived in the Bad Bramstedt area, also known for the healing power of its waters, and the site of a number of health spas. Johan’s grandson, Charles Holford would marry James’ granddaughter, Winifred Ross in Sydney many years later. Charles and Winifred were my grandparents.

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